In late December, 2015, Lee Bo, a Hong Kong-based shareholder of a book-publishing company, suddenly disappeared. He had not shown up to work, his family and friends had not seen nor heard from him, and his wife had filed a missing persons report with local authorities. Though he has not yet returned nor been in contact with his loved ones, Lee’s wife eventually withdrew the missing persons report with the explanation that he had traveled to China of his own accord to assist in an investigation. Normally, an open and shut case. But the fact that Lee has not been heard from by anyone else, coupled with the fact that around the same time period, four of his associates—including a Swedish national—have also gone missing, casts serious suspicion on the incidents. Lee’s background and specialty in publishing works critical of mainland leadership has caused the focus of the investigation to shift toward Beijing, who has so far refused to respond to requests for information.
China (in this case, the communist government in Beijing) has long had a policy of swift and often brutal suppression of dissent amongst its people, to include imprisonment. According to the online journal China Law and Policy, “Since the middle of February (2011), the Chinese government has been illegally abducting Chinese rights activists, preventing them from contacting their family, let alone a lawyer, and subjecting them to torture and abuse.” And most everyone is familiar with Beijing’s brutal response to the protests at Tiananmen Square in April, 1989, and the now-infamous photo of the lone protester facing down a tank in defiance of the chaos around him. The crackdown had an immediate and lasting negative impact on relations between China and most of the rest of the world.
If the suspicions that the Chinese government played a role in the disappearance of the five men turn out to be true, it would likely cause a major (if ultimately ineffective) backlash from world leaders. The case has already sparked protests in Hong Kong, and the fact that mainland authorities have thus far largely been silent on the issue has only caused tension to mount. For Hong Kong authorities, the overarching grievance with Beijing involvement (if they are involved) would be the clear violation of the “one country, two systems” rule that was assured as a part of the British handover of rule in July, 1997.
For its part, the only response from Beijing was made by Wang Zhenmin, the legal affairs chief for the mainland government’s office in Hong Kong, who simply acknowledged that under the agreed-to legal autonomy of the handover, Chinese law enforcement and military are forbidden from operating in the city. Wang also stated that Beijing is just as concerned about the “legal case,” and seemed to explain away his government’s silence in the face of formal requests for explanations and assistance by stating, “To investigate cases like this is very complicated, “ and that “it takes time to find eventual truth.”
Sweden, Britain, and the United States have all expressed concerns about the disappearances through formal channels, but many agree that unless these men are found or someone with knowledge of their whereabouts comes forward, the “eventual truth” may never be known. One thing is for sure, however. Even if Beijing’s involvement is (for now) just a rumor, the disappearance of these five men will serve as a warning to any possible dissenter that if they end up on Beijing’s radar, no perceived “safe zone,” no government, and no legal agreements will be enough to keep them from its reach.